Annual Meeting
Philadelphia Among Cities Where Poe Labored
Psychiatric News
Volume 37 Number 6 page 15-15

One might assume, upon reading the works of 19th century writer Edgar Allan Poe, that he lived in lavish quarters during his lifetime—say, a mansion with "the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain," as he describes a house in his famous poem "The Raven."

Most of the digs that Poe lived in during his 40 years on earth were, however, far from plush. In fact, a visit to the house in Philadelphia where he lived in 1843 and 1844, when he was in his mid 30s, reveals a modest abode.

It is a small brick house with six rooms, bereft of any décor except for a wall containing photographs of Poe’s family. Certainly, the rooms must have been somewhat homier when Poe lived there, and they were of course furnished. Still, it is hard to imagine that Poe resided there in any style. (The same can be said of the little brick row house in Baltimore, where he lived from 1832 to 1835.)

Nonetheless, the six years Poe lived and worked in Philadelphia—1838 to1844—were probably the best of his life. That news should hearten his fans.

For example, he lived with his beloved wife, Virginia; his treasured mother-in-law, Maria Clemm (whom he called "Muddy"); and their tabby, Catterina.

What’s more, he already had a number of literary achievements under his belt by the time he arrived in Philadelphia. For instance, he had published his first volume of poems at age 18; at age 22 he published another volume. From ages 22 to 25, he sold tales to journals in Baltimore and Philadelphia. At age 25 he became editor of the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond, Va.

It was while he lived and worked in Philadelphia that he produced what would become some of his most famous tales, including "The Gold Bug," "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Tell-Tale Heart," and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." In fact, with the publication of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" Poe invented the modern mystery story, since a detective, C. Auguste Dupin, solved crimes through a process of rational thinking. Dupin was the predecessor of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, and television sleuths Columbo and Jessica Fletcher.

Poe also wrote the poem "Annabel Lee" during his Philadelphia years and dedicated it to his wife, Virginia and a tale that might especially interest psychiatrists. It is called "William Wilson" and has to do with a man with a "split personality."

In spite of a happy domestic environment and these literary achievements, however, Poe’s six years in Philadelphia had their difficulties. For example, while some of his works earned him a fairly good income, others brought him little or none at all. Then in 1842, Virginia came down with tuberculosis. As her physical health waxed and waned, his mental health did the same.

Life for Poe went largely downhill after he, Virginia, Maria, and Catterina left Philadelphia in 1844 and moved to New York City. True, when he published his poem "The Raven" in 1845, it was a great success. But in 1846 "The Broadway Journal," which he had attempted to publish, failed, and Virginia became very ill. She died in 1847. In 1849, on his way from Richmond to New York City, Poe fell ill in Baltimore and died four days later.

The cause of death? Some speculation focuses on alcoholism, since Poe had had a serious drinking problem. However, in 1996, a University of Maryland cardiologist reviewed the circumstances surrounding Poe’s death and hypothesized that the cause might have been rabies.

The Philadelphia Edgar Allan Poe house is located at 532 North Seventh Street, at the intersection of Spring Garden Street. The house is open to the public Wednesdays through Sundays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. More information is available by calling (215) 597-8780.

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